Landon Collins excelled on a big stage at Alabama and models his game after Sean Taylor. What's not to like about the 2015 NFL draft's top safety?
With the 2015 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
As we move into the top half of the hypothetical first round, each player gets his own, more detailed scouting report. Up next, a standout at one of college football's most respected defensive factories with a national championship to his name and the potential to be one of the first 10 names called on the draft's opening night.
15. Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Bio: Before every one of his games since high school, Collins has fired up Sean Taylor's highlight videos on YouTube. Collins wore No. 26 at Alabama as a tribute to Taylor, who sported the same number while playing for the University of Miami.
"If I could compare myself [to an NFL player]: Kam Chancellor," Collins said. "But I always idolized myself after Sean Taylor. That's my [role] model. ... His physical presence and passion for the game—you could see it every time he touches the field."
No one would dare set a bar for Collins approaching the level of Taylor, who appeared headed toward a Hall of Fame-caliber career before he was shot and killed inside his home during a failed robbery attempt in 2007.
One element of Collins's story that does match Taylor's rise is the hype that has followed him into the draft. Taylor was selected with the fifth pick by Washington in 2004; the next safety did not come off the board for another 39 picks, when Bob Sanders went to the Colts. There could be a similar gap between Collins and whichever safety is selected next this year.
Part of the reason Collins has drawn so much attention is the relative weakness of the 2015 safety class, but his numbers would stand out in any year. He was a unanimous All-America selection last season after leading the Crimson Tide in tackles with 103. Collins also shared the team lead in interceptions (three), despite doing his best work while playing in the box. But Collins saw action at both safety spots, hammering down a full-time starting role the previous season after an injury sidelined Vinnie Sunseri.
"Just knowing both positions and being so versatile will help me," Collins said. "Knowing I can drop in the back whenever and be up close if they need me to."
Strengths: Collins is a force against the run, showing the awareness to pick through traffic and a linebacker-like mentality in finishing plays.
"Being in the box, that's where my size allows me to play," Collins said. "The coaching staff at Alabama told me, 'You have to be tough down there and you have to be accountable.' I just had to increase my range and that helped me play sideline to sideline."
It certainly was not luck that led to Collins topping the 100-tackle mark last season. Taking a page from the playbook of his idol Taylor, Collins plays with an edge near the line—he can tackle with authority and does not shy away from taking on blockers. There are very few wasted steps in Collins's approach.
The Dutchtown (La.) High School product posted a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Collins uses that speed most effectively when he is playing downhill.
"He reminds me a little bit of Deone Bucannon last year, who went late to Arizona," the NFL Network's Mike Mayock said. "I love the way Arizona used him, which was kind of
a strong safety in their base coverage, and then dime linebacker in their nickel and dime. [Bucannon is] big enough to take on a run but certainly quick and athletic enough to cover running backs and tight ends, and that's what I see with Landon Collins."
Collins did in fact hold his own when matched up with running backs and tight ends in man-to-man coverage. There's also plenty to like about his deep range, especially when the field is cut in half by a two-deep set. "I can cover from the middle of the field to the numbers," he said.
Collins finds the football in the air and breaks on it quickly, showing a good feel for the sideline. His tackling prowess from the secondary gave Alabama's cornerbacks and linebackers more freedom to pin their ears back, knowing that Collins was ready to clean up any mess.
As with all recent Alabama draft hopefuls, Collins played in a boatload of big games, often raising his game to match the setting.
Weaknesses: Collins admitted that he is "cool with it" when people label him as an in-the-box safety. "I like being in the box," he said. "There's not that much area to cover and it's easy. If the running back is coming through it, I can meet him in the hole and I'll definitely be right there to bring him down."
That is all well and good, unless a team holding an early pick needs a centerfielder type at the safety position. Collins's bugaboo is in coverage, there is no question about it. Some of it has to do with technique, some with Collins's playing style: His footwork can leave him in tough spots against speedy receivers deep (a slow short-shuttle time at the combine was indicative of those issues), but he more often puts himself in tough positions by peeking into the backfield. His desire to crash the line will lead Collins to bite on play-action or jump the wrong spots.
Conclusion: Collins's situation is not that different from what may happen with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Those two players are exceptionally talented, but it's the drop-off to the third- and fourth-best quarterbacks in the draft that has helped drive interest in Winston and Mariota atop Round 1.
Likewise, most draft boards will feature Collins as the top safety prospect, a bunch of blank space and then a second tier. That reality should not change the outlook on Collins; it could, however, elevate him into the top 10 or 15 picks.
The changing nature of pro offenses places a premium on defensive backs who can do what Collins can: provide help over the top, with the athleticism to bring the hammer against the run or defend from the slot.
There are a limited number of NFL safeties with Collins's skill set. There do not appear to be any others at his level in this class.